US President Joe Biden on Monday made a trip to Kyiv organised in strict secrecy, promising $500 million in fresh arms deliveries and “unwavering” American support ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
Air raid sirens rang out across Kyiv at one point as Biden walked alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during what was the US president’s first visit to the country since Russian troops invaded on February 24, 2022.
“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Biden said, speaking beside Zelensky at the Ukrainian president’s official residence, the Mariinsky Palace.
Russian President Vladimir “Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us.”
“He’s just been plain wrong,” Biden said, adding that “Putin’s war of conquest is failing”.
The visit was organised in conditions of extraordinary secrecy.
Biden left Washington in the early hours of Sunday in a plane that had been parked discreetly beside a hanger in the dark with shades drawn, and he landed in Poland on Sunday evening.
He was driven up to the train platform and quickly boarded the 10-hour overnight service to Kyiv, arriving at 8:00 am local time.
One pool reporter and one photographer travelled with him, with their phones taken away by agents, and they could only release full details after Biden had completed the return train journey to Poland.
They said most of the train was occupied by security personnel, and that there were a handful of brief stops in the night as they entered Ukraine.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington notified Russia about the trip “some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes”.
‘Good sign’ for Ukrainians
He said it was “unprecedented” in modern times for a US president to visit the capital of a country at war in which the US military “does not control the critical infrastructure”.
It was the first trip to Ukraine by a US president since 2008.
Kyiv residents said they were delighted.
“This means that the Americans are clearly and irrevocably on our side,” said 50-year-old Oksana Shylo.
“It’s a good sign for the Ukrainian people, for Ukraine’s victory,” said businessman Vladyslav Denysenko, 27.
During the trip, Biden promised an additional $500 million in arms deliveries for Ukraine, mentioning in particular artillery ammunition, howitzers and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Behind the eastern front line at a secret military repair yard, mechanics work on a BMP-3 infantry combat vehicle seized from the Russians during last year’s Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region.
“The Ukrainian Army doesn’t have one,” says Ruslan, 47, who has been a soldier for 30 years and is in charge of the repair shop soldiers.
“To fix it we’ve had to take apart another vehicle for its parts,” he adds.
‘Closer to victory’
Zelensky said he and Biden also discussed the possibility of supplying “long range weapons” to Ukraine, a long-standing request from Kyiv that has been met with reticence in Washington where there is concern that they could be used to strike deep inside Russian territory.
Zelensky hailed the visit as a key sign of support.
“This conversation brings us closer to victory,” he said, calling the trip and the promise of additional US arms supplies “an unequivocal signal that Russian attempts to win will have no chance”.
After their talks, Biden and Zelensky visited St Michael’s gold-domed cathedral, long a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and the air raid sirens were heard across the city as the two leaders left the church.
They then laid a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance for the fallen heroes of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as a military salute played.
Biden later visited the US embassy in Kyiv, according to White House pool reports.
After exiting Ukraine by train, Biden flew late in the evening to Warsaw, where he is set to give a major speech on Tuesday—hours after Putin gives a state of the nation address that will be largely devoted to the conflict.
During his Kyiv visit, Biden also promised additional US sanctions.
A year of war
But new data out Monday showed the Russian economy was absorbing Western sanctions better than expected.
The Russian economy contracted by 2.1 percent last year, according to government statistics agency Rosstat, better than the 2.9 percent contraction forecast by the government in September.
According to the latest estimates from Norway, the conflict has wounded or killed 180,000 Russian soldiers and 100,000 Ukrainian troops.
Other Western sources estimate the war has caused 150,000 casualties on each side.